Pope Francis is going to revolutionize Catholicism. He’s already at it. The survey ordered by the Vatican to find out what the lay people believe about some social issues — gay marriage and adoption, contraceptives, divorce and communion, de facto unions and so on, up to 39 questions — is a masterly move to disarm the conservative wing of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, deeply entrenched in the structure of the church.
For centuries, Rome used the authorities and the word of the popes and dignitaries of the church to dictate and impose moral standards. The institution doubted the ability of simple believers to pass judgments of an ethical nature, to the extent that for centuries it prohibited the reading of the Bible without the authorization of a priest or a bishop.
Now, Francis is going to ask ordinary Catholics for their opinion, probably to strengthen his own opinions and maybe to demonstrate that the church means everyone, merged into what Catholics call “the mystical body of Christ.” Jesus is the head. The rest are all baptized Christians.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an elected monarch with enormous power, could have taken advantage of the condition of infallibility attributed to popes by Vatican Council I in 1870, but has not wanted to speak ex cathedra, proclaim new dogmas or impose his will. That’s not his style. Through his statements (“Who am I to judge?”) and by rejecting ostentation and luxury, he demonstrates a natural humility that has captivated believers and nonbelievers alike. He’s a pope who breaks rules, but at the same time seems to be a builder of consensus.
His revolutionary character does not mean, of course, that he’s one of those religious people won over by the Marxist vision of “liberation theology” or other ideological deviations. He’s too smart to fall into that crass error. His long experience with Peronist populism in Argentina probably has vaccinated him against this fatal way to deal with governance and understand the relationship between state and society.
It was a symptom for him to dare receive in private the Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, an encounter that almost all Latin American leaders have cowardly declined, and to arrange for the strategic and public placement of a Cuban “lady in white” from the democratic opposition so that he could give her his blessing. That message should not be overlooked by the pusillanimous sector of the Cuban religious hierarchy.
How far will Bergoglio’s Vatican revolution go? Probably very far. We know when these processes of change begin and how they begin, but not when and how they end. The Catholic Church has many pending issues to discuss. One of them is the role of women inside the institution.
The church inherited the old misogynist tradition of the Middle East, in which women lived segregated and in the background, but there’s nothing in Christianity that really prevents them from being ordained priests, rising to bishops, cardinals and, if it comes to that, popes. Why not? If anything made Christianity grow inside the Roman world it was precisely its inclusive and universal nature. There was room for everyone: men, women, slaves, freemen, children, the elderly, whites, blacks. “Catholic” means universal.
Another topic that rattles the church is celibacy. Why would a merciful God who loves his flock be pleased because priests are forbidden to love carnally and humanly? Didn’t priests marry during the first millennium of the church? Isn’t “growing and multiplying” the normal conduct of the species? Wouldn’t the problems of couples and families be better understood by priests who had that experience? Would there not be fewer cases of pederasty among the clergy if they had legitimate access to people of the opposite sex?
Centuries ago, other Christians, led by Luther, an Augustine priest, began a profound religious reform. These are good questions for a forthcoming questionnaire. But the key question might be this one: Is this the end of Catholicism?